When Venezuela's opposition broke the ruling party's 17-year stranglehold on power by winning control of congress in December, the political earthquake created editorial aftershocks at the 24-hour news station Globovisión.
In a country where most news media are either controlled by President Nicolás Maduro's administration or rarely criticize it, Globovisión abruptly dropped its pro-government line, analysts told CPJ. Instead, Globovisión began covering congress, interviewing both opposition and pro-government politicians, and taking a much harder look at issues such as food shortages, triple-digit inflation, and allegations of government mismanagement.
The shift began on January 3 when Globovisión broke away from a program hosted by an ardent ruling party politician to provide live coverage of opposition lawmakers electing the new congressional president.
"It was very abrupt," Damián Prat, a columnist for the independent Correo del Caroní newspaper in eastern Venezuela, told CPJ. "It was a complete change--from censorship to total information."
But Vladimir Villegas, a former government official who is now Globovisión's principal anchor, offered a different interpretation. In an interview at his office in Caracas, he told CPJ: "The country has changed and that is being reflected by the channel."
Globovisión is already taking heat for its more defiant stance. Congress is the only branch of government that the ruling United Socialist Party does not control, and the Maduro government has responded by ignoring the legislature. But Globovisión often provides extended live coverage of its sessions, including incendiary speeches by some opposition lawmakers. That prompted President Maduro to lash out at Globovisión during a nationally televised speech in January, in which he called the station's coverage "out of control."
Agents from the state TV regulator Conatel made a surprise inspection of the station in February--a move that Villegas denounced on air as an effort to intimidate and silence Globovisión. Conatel responded with a statement calling the visit a routine inspection and denying that it was pressuring Globovisión.
Globovisión has undergone several makeovers since it was founded in 1994 as Venezuela's first all-news channel. Broadcast in the cities of Caracas and Valencia and available on cable in the rest of the country, Globovisión was supposed to be Venezuela's answer to CNN.
But under the late Hugo Chávez, who ushered in Venezuela's socialist revolution in 1999, Globovisión became one of the most vocal critics of his government. Critics accused the station of tacitly supporting a 2002 coup that briefly removed Chávez from office and of imposing a news blackout when he returned to power two days later. Villegas, who strongly supported the Chávez government, told CPJ that in those days Globovisión was more like "a political party with cameras."
Soon afterwards, the Chávez government moved to take greater control over the Venezuelan media. CPJ has documented how it refused to renew transmission licenses of independent radio and TV stations including Radio Caracas Television, which was forced off the air in 2007; how it turned state-run broadcasters into propaganda organs; and how it pressured the privately owned media with fines and by withdrawing state advertising. By 2012, Globovisión was the only remaining TV station left in Venezuela that was both critical of the government and had national reach.
But it paid a steep price. Globovisión was hit with government lawsuits for its coverage and multi-million-dollar fines, and its principle owner, Guillermo Zuloaga, fled the country in 2010 to escape a series of legal charges, according to CPJ's 2012 report on the challenges the station faced. Fearing that Globovisión's transmission license would not be renewed, Zuloaga sold the station to a group of Caracas businessmen in 2013, shortly after Chávez died and was succeeded by Maduro.
The new owners, whom news reports claimed had close ties to the government, met with Maduro at the presidential palace in May 2013 and one later hinted they had promised to tone down the station's coverage, Reuters reported. Globovisión's investigative unit was disbanded, numerous programs critical of the government were canceled, and dozens of journalists quit or were forced out, Mariengracia Chirinos, of the Caracas-based press watchdog group Institute for Press and Society, told CPJ.
One of the new faces that Globovisión brought in was Villegas, who joined the station in 2013. Previously, he served as an ambassador to Mexico and Brazil for the Chávez government and worked closely with Maduro when he served as Chávez's foreign minister. Villegas' flagship interview program "Vladimir a la 1" features a diverse guest list. But many other programs ignored critical voices and Globovisión's blander coverage led to lower viewer ratings, according to news reports.
The station's coverage of Venuezuela's changing political landscape has started to redress that. Since the opposition won a decisive majority in December 6 congressional elections its lawmakers have started investigating government officials and pushing for a constitutional way to remove President Maduro from office. Today, the center of political action in Venezuela is the congress and Globovisión's coverage of its sessions has helped the station win back some of its traditional viewers, Villegas said.
However, the station's editorial position could come back to haunt Globovisión as it lobbies for renewal of its transmission license. Although the license expired in 2015, Conatel has yet to issue a decision. It did not immediately respond to CPJ's request for comment.
"In my view this is a kind of extortion," Villegas told CPJ. "Dozens of TV and radio stations have been waiting for years to get their licenses renewed. It is a mechanism for the government to try to control the content of the media."
Although free press advocates cheer the changes at Globovisión, they say the overall situation for independent media in Venezuela remains bleak. Government controls on the sales and distribution of newsprint have forced many independent newspapers to stop printing or to switch from daily to weekly print editions. This month, David Natera Febres, the editor of Correo del Caroní, received a four-year prison sentence for investigating alleged corruption at a state-run mining company. And most TV news programs still shy away from critical coverage of the government, Chirinos said.
"It should be normal for a TV news station to open up its microphones to different points of view," Chirinos told CPJ. But she said the changes at Globovisión stand out because "in Venezuela there is so much fear and silence among the media."
[Reporting from Caracas]